Couch Talk Episode 88 (play)
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is Oliver Broom, who cycled his way from London, England to Brisbane, Australia to watch the 2010-11 Ashes. He talks about the planning involved in undertaking such a massive endeavor, how he handled the physical and mental aspects of it and the effect it had on his world views, amongst other things.
Welcome to the show, Oli!
Oliver Broom– Thanks very much. Thanks for having me on.
SJ– My pleasure.
It is the first day of the Ashes today, as we record this. The first day of the last Ashes down under is when you completed your epic cycling odyssey.
OB– It feels like a long time ago, now. This time, during the last Ashes, I was sitting in the stands in Brisbane, resting my weary legs. Now, I am talking to you in my flat in London watching the Ashes at Trent Bridge on my iPhone. A bit different. Times change.
SJ– My first question to you is – how mental are you to cycle your way through 23 countries, 4 continents, through 14000 miles and 400 days?
OB– Yes, but it is the biggest series in world cricket, so I have to show some commitment to go out there. It was actually weird to arrive. My parents were jumping up and down, screaming, crying when I arrived at ‘Gabba after 412 days on the road. I had spoken to them 2 days earlier on the phone. They had flown from London to Brisbane in the intervening period. It was really weird for me. I had put in quite a lot of sweat and tears into my 14 months on the road and they just showed how easy it is to get to the other part of the world these days. That would have been the other way of getting to Australia. But I wouldn’t have changed for anything.
SJ– Was your day job that bad that you had to take on this brutal endeavour to energize your life? What was it all about? Of course, you wanted to go for the Ashes.
OB– It was pretty bad. I just didn’t love it. i found myself, a few weeks before I decided to quit, undertaking a challenge to eat a 1000 raisins in 1 hour at my desk. My secretary, she was counting out the raisins. I did this challenge, I was eating these raisins, trying to do it under an hour and realised that I am nearly 30 years old and I am trying to eat 1000 raisins in an hour at my desk. What am I doing? This is obviously not a job that I love. It was a ridiculous challenge. Shortly after that, I became probably the first person ever to leave work for eating too many raisins. I had to go home and be sick. I just thought to myself, what am I doing? I didn’t love what I was doing. I felt like I wanted to love what i was doing.
Although at that time I didn’t know what i wanted to be, I had always fantasised this idea of cycling off into the sunset and not coming back for a while. I used to do a lot of cycling down in the South of Spain when I was living down there, working as a gardener. I planned this trip across North Africa. The only reason that did not happen is because I ran out of money. It was always on the back of my mind, the idea of a long term trip, but maybe not as long as a trip to Australia.
SJ– How long was your planning session and, I read on the book that you made an 8 day trip to Paris from London. Talk about the planning.
OB– Really slow trip to Paris. Basically, I had decided to go on a bicycle ride. I persuaded my friend, Laura, to come cycling with me. We did a roundabout trip to Paris, basically thinking if I could do 8 days’ trip to Paris, I could do…
OB– Yeah. That is a fair call, because the only thing you are doing is sitting on a bike the whole time. I would get plenty of rest on a long journey. It worked out alright, but the back was in agony. The geometry of my bike was very bad. One of the main things that I wanted to do when I decided to go on a long trip was to get a decent bike.
There were a few things that I had to plan like that – get a decent bike, get a funding for that. Get sponsors for various things. I didn’t think much about getting fit, I thought I would get fit on the road. Trust me, the first few days on the journey, I was in absolute agony. My knee mostly. There were a few days of planning. I had a job. I moved in with my family in January 2009, kept my job. I wasn’t able to tell any of my mates what I was planning because London is a small place in a way. Word might get out and my boss might find out and they would just sack me. I needed to save the money.. I moved to my parents’, saved that much.
I had a chat with a bloke one day and spoke about all of this where I decided that I was going to be cycling to the Ashes. This was about 3 months before i left. He asked me to quit my job, that would enable me to then spread the word, get the message out on social media and write emails and letters to companies and get sponsorships. So, I quit next morning and got sponsorships for most of the things that I needed within a few weeks. The only thing that I didn’t get was funding for the trip. That came very shortly before I left, which was very lucky, in the end.
SJ– You get on the trip, you have friends riding along with you as you leave the Grace Road gates, some even get up till Dover, and then you are on your own. How did you break it into parts? You cant be thinking about cycling in Asia when you are just in mainland Europe?
OB– Yes. You are completely right. You have to compartmentalise it. You hear about cricketers compartmentalise things… I had compartmentalised my journeys into very short stretches to begin with. I talk about it in my book, how I had to reward myself with Haribo, Mars bar or some kind of food, or whatever, it was Haribo at first. When I had completed a 5 or 10 km stretch, I would sit down and have a few Haribos, listen to some of my favourite songs and then I would starve myself of all those things for the next 5-10 km. That is how I went for the first few days at the start. My knee was quite painful. I wasn’t an experienced cyclist. I needed those motivations. You have to start breaking down into 5-10 km sections. You start breaking down into days so you only think about the night ahead or the day ahead. And then you break it into weeks and it becomes easier. You can’t start thinking just about Australia.
One of the tactics that I used was when people always said to me, “Where are you cycling to?” At the start, I used to say, “Australia!” After a few days, I was thinking, “Bloody hell. It is a long way to Australia.” I changed my mind. From a few weeks into the journey, when people asked me about the journey, I would say the name of the next town. Maybe even the neighbouring country. Even then people would still be amazed. It then got me thinking in that sort of mindset that you can’t think too far ahead.
Also, you want to enjoy where you are. I was cycling through many beautiful places. No point looking ahead too much.
SJ– That is true. There must have been days where you might not have spoken to another soul or even if you did, they didn’t speak English? That leaves you a lot of time on the saddle for introspection, and to explore some darker parts of your psyche. How was that for you?
OB– One of the reasons that I wanted to go on the first place was to see how I can be on my own. I always fancied myself as being better with people than being on my own. But, I am equally happy on being on my own. It was definitely a test. I always say that physically, the challenge of cycling to Australia wasn’t actually that tricky. It was more of a mental challenge. It varied in various countries.
In India, I found it very difficult because I could never get away from people. I think it was the only place I felt lonely. In a country of 1.2 billion people, how can you feel lonely? But, I did. I wish I had the company of friends there. In Sudan, it is a different challenge because you don’t speak to anyone for days.
I thought about a lot of stuffs. During my trip through Germany, I wrote in my diary, a lazy, stupid thought I had during the daylight – “Why do so many Germans have moustaches? How do they still wear with such devastating effect when it looks so silly on an Englishman.” Then I thought about life and what was going to happen when I got home, and whether what I was doing was worthwhile. All sorts of things. Plenty of thinking.
At the same time, my journey was definitely broken up by kind people I met. In a way, I didn’t have as much thinking time as you might expect.
SJ– Talking about self-doubt, how many times did you…there must have been plenty of times when you thought of quitting this god-damned thing and taking the next flight back to London. But what kept you pushing through it?
OB– I was having a great time, but there were definitely days where there was a moment where I thought “Bloody hell, what am I doing?”, when the wind was too strong or it was 55 deg C in the desert in Sudan or the 40th group of motorcycles who had come out to me in a day in India and were crowding me. How did I keep going? I love that. I knew I can get through each problem, each bad moment. I love the idea that I would go through it and have a great day or week. I was always enjoying it. There were very few moments in the trip where I thought really that I was hating this, and I wanted to go home.
There was a time in Thailand when I had dengue fever and I was in hospital and was in bed for a couple of weeks, in hospital for a week. That was a low moment. I hadn’t spoken to friends for weeks by the end of my time in hospital. I hadn’t spoken to family, haven’t seen family for over an year. That was quite hard. But, the promise of the Ashes kept me up. that is why I chose to cycle to a specific event. I knew that if I had not chosen to cycle to a specific even, I wouldn’t have that thing dragging me onwards. I met a lot of travellers on my way through certain countries, and nothing drove them on to travel. They were just wandering. I can’t travel like that. I need something to aim for. The greatest cricket rivalry fits that bill, and that kept me going.
SJ– You mentioned getting sick with dengue fever in South East Asia. Any other parts when you got sick? I don’t think you got into any accident. Any uneventful event?
OB– I often say that I wish I had a few more accidents because it would have made good few topics for the book. Book has turned out alright. My overriding memory of the whole trip is of kindness from the people. I was basically very lucky. I don’t know that if I do this trip again whether I would be as lucky, probably not. I would have a few scrapes. Probably if other people did it, they would have it the same. But I think I was very lucky at the time. People were generally very good. There were situations where I thought I was in trouble, and suddenly I would turn around and I would be welcomed by someone who looked a bit dodgy. I would be walking into their house for food and a nice sleep.
I came into all these countries with pre-conceptions. Generally, the pre-conceptions I had especially in places like Syria, Sudan, Bangladesh, places where you don’t hear a lot of good news in the UK, my pre-conception was smashed to pieces. I had a few nasty events like being knocked off the bike in Bulgaria by a passing truck. Not as much knocked off, but more of the fact that I jumped over in the fear that the truck was going to run me over. There was a nasty scrape with wild dogs in Turkey. A potential episode with a crocodile in Australia- I just managed to escape that and lived to tell a tale of it.
SJ– As you mention, the random act of kindness from strangers, people giving you food , shelter, tea, wine, whatever. How did the understanding of the world for you change? How did you grow into a better person?
OB– One of the things that I am delighted for is that I have a positive outlook of Islamic countries now. There is an awful lot of stuffs going out there in the British press and Western media about Islamic extremism. I have nothing but positive view of all of the Islamic countries I travelled through. I had a sneaking suspicion. I knew Islamic religion is very big on hospitality and specially for travellers, so I had a suspicion that I would be on the receiving end of it. i was just delighted that I was. That was fantastic. It is seen as a duty to guard, take in travellers. I was often taken in for the night, given food. The expectation is that you will not do anything in return. Just that you will be grateful and carry on with your journey. The reason you are given this hospitality is because you are a traveller. Once you are given the hospitality, you move on. You don’t hang around and outstay your welcome. That was really eye-opening for me. It is one of the abiding memory that I have from places from Sudan, Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh. Great hospitality.
It was quite tricky sometimes wondering whether I was seen as a rich Westerner because I was travelling on a bicycle, whether I was being perceived as someone more on the high level. That was always a bit of a dilemma that I had when I was in the middle of the Central Anatolia Plateau in Turkey or in the middle of India, villages outside of Hyderabad or Mumbai. Do i get my video camera out, and start filming about my trip? Do I take photos? Do I take out all these expensive kits? Or am I a bit more sensitive because I am travelling through some poor parts of the world?
I cannot hide the fact that I was on an expensive looking bike, and because I wasn’t seen as a equal…it was a tricky thing to know. I struggle with that dilemma.
SJ– You mentioned in the book multiple times, and I have read it on the blog that India was the hardest part of the journey. You mentioned earlier in the conversation about the crowd, humanity hits you on the face. Whether you get on a plane or train or bus or whatever. Besides the fact that there are 1.2 billion people, what was it about India that made it really hard for you?
OB– It was the attention. And parts of that was because I was cycling across the country on India’s favourite mode of transport – bicycle. Also, that I was carrying a cricket bat with me. Kids used to chase me down the street, I think I mentioned in the book, down the Konkan coast, south of Mumbai. I got chased through a village by 10s of kids shouting “Mongoose Bat! Mongoose Bat!” how they could see it was a mongoose Bat, I have no idea. Even from the start of the journey through India, that attention was fantastic. I can’t complain about the attention either. It is just that I found it difficult. Constantly standing out like a sore thumb because I am blond, a burnt face, and everything else. I just found that attention very difficult to deal with. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t in 45 deg C. It was the build up to the monsoon, April – May. It was just very intense.
And obviously, the traffic is pretty crazy for an Englishman who has grown up in the countryside. Where I grew up, 3 cars went past my door each day. Driving on the road between Hyderabad and Vijayawada was one of the scariest moments of my life. when I say ‘moments’, I mean 2 days. It is quite hard work.
But, on the flip side of that, although India was the hardest part of the journey – and I am not saying because you have a lot of Indian listeners – I say in the book as well – it was my favourite country. I have only been there twice, but both for quite long journeys. It is a wonderful place. So much kindness in fact. It is definitely my favourite country. A traveller who goes there will never be bored.
The flip side of the attention was the interest. I was so grateful to see people being so interested, the Indians. Everywhere I went, I had people to stay with, people to visit, to play cricket with, people to film my journey. There were a lot of media interest as well. it was fantastic. I would love to write another book, and I know the location. I know where I want to go to write that book. It is India. but I won’t necessarily cycle across it. Cycling across any country can be quite tricky. Cycling across India is just seriously hard work. I almost lost my mind. I got knocked off the bike a couple of times.
One of the fascinating things was that in India I used to leave my bicycle in villages all over the place, in the middle of rural places, and I would ask the shopkeeper “Can I leave my bike with you while I go for some food?” they would always say “Yes” and look after it. They would even clean it, without me asking. I would go back after half an hour, an hour later and it would be there. it would not be stolen or tampered with. I could trust the Indians with my bicycle. I think it brought us closer and made me feel good about the place and the people saw me as a traveller. I loved trusting the Indians while riding through the country.
SJ– You have written, and I quote from the book, “Cycling is what you did rather than a chore that had to be completed.” Even then, when you rode into the ‘Gabba, on the first day of the Ashes, after 412 days on the road, how weird was the feeling that you didn’t have to cycle anymore?
OB– Really sad, actually. You have picked up on something that I don’t necessarily touch in the book, because the book finishes when I arrive in Brisbane. To come down from finishing my trip was quite heavy. I had few weeks of enjoying the Ashes, watching all the matches; but the thought that I was never going to get back on the bike and pedal across the continents again – that was quite hard to deal with. I loved, LOVED moving everyday, see different places, meet new people every day. I slowly came to grips that that is not real life. Real life is putting down one’s roots, of being with your mates, proper job and so that is what I got back to. It was horrible to start with. That was the excitement for a year and a bit.
SJ– You did this for a great cause as well – for raising money for the Lord’s Taverners as well as the Neurological Society.
OB– Neurological Research Trust, yes. I was pleased. I often get to hear from people who go through these challenges and state that their reason for doing this, to cycle to America or whatever, is to raise money for charity. I am always a bit curious, because there are many more easy ways to raise charity than cycling around the world. it wasn’t the reason I went. But I was pleased to raise money for charity. If you are going to go around the world like that, especially English people, it is a huge thing to raise money for charity for big challenges. People are more than happy to give something back. I am extremely happy to support those two challenges.
I must say that I also played an awful lot of cricket, in lots of weird and wonderful countries that I certainly never knew had thriving cricket. I played in places like Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, taught Sudanese nomads cricket in the desert under the hot sun, I played in Indonesia on top of mountains. That was a part of the whole journey – playing all these games of cricket.
SJ– So, if you know everything that you know now of what it takes to go on such an arduous odyssey, would you do it again? Would you recommend it to others?
OB– Yes, I would definitely recommend it to others, and it is for everyone. Lots of people say “I can never do that.” Trust me, there are very few people who cannot do that, certainly physically. Once you get into the rhythm of cycling, it is fine. The mental side is a bit tougher. Get up every morning, appreciate the surrounding and keep pedalling. I definitely recommend to other people. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do it again. *laughs* It is one of the things with journeys that are so long, I think once in a lifetime – consumes quite a large percentage of my life. i had quite a few percentage of my life taken out on the bike every day, not being with friends, family and I remember how tough some days were. So, I wouldn’t want to go through that again. But, everyone should do that sort of thing once.
SJ– Your book, “Cycling With The Ashes” is out now. I guess it came out on 3rd of July? Just in time for the Ashes? Plug away, my friend.
OB– It is basically a book which is half about cricket and half about travelling, links the two themes – bike ride and playing cricket all over the world – in a 384 page packet. I really enjoyed writing it actually. The only reason I loved writing it is because I got to live my trip all over again. I have cycled to Australia, got back and cycled back to Australia through the medium of writing a book. Which is great – I got to remember all the people, the interesting places, the scary moments, all kinds of stuffs. They are all in the book. I hope people enjoy it. It is on Amazon. It is in all book stores in the UK. It is in India. it is definitely being published in Australia in the next few months. I hope you enjoy it. Go to http://www.olibroom.com and find out how to buy. Hopefully, they will enjoy it.
SJ– I would let you go with one last thing. The Ashes has just begun. What is your prediction?
OB– I have been watching it while we have been talking. 70/1 we are, on the first morning. What is my prediction? I think it would be the same result as it was in Australia. 3-1. I said on Sky Sports on first morning of the last series;. I predicted 3-1 live on Sky Sports and I was right, which is pretty amazing. I never get these things right. 3-1.
SJ– Fantastic, Oli. Fabulous talking to you. Good luck to your book, and I hope I can chat to you soon.
OB– Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me on. I hope the Indian fans enjoy the Ashes as well, even though it is Test cricket.
SJ– I am sure they will.
OB– Fantastic. Cheers!